The science of learning by making

Makerspaces provide a setting for active learning—exploring, innovating, creating—but making as learning is a relatively new phenomenon, and the formal research behind it is still developing. Research findings from the realms of psychology and cognitive science can give educators some insight into how to successfully integrate making and learning.

Author and consultant Annie Murphy Paul addressed some of the theories that supports successful maker-based learning in her School Library Journal article, “How to Ensure that Making Leads to Learning.”

Specifically, Paul points to cognitive load theory and productive failure as approaches that, when applied strategically, can help educators ensure successful implementation of maker-based learning.

Cognitive load theory suggests that students learn best when they’re focused on just one or two ideas at a time. Educators can help young makers stay focused by helping manage cognitive clutter—by helping them stay on task and guiding decision making while leaving room for creative thinking. Instructors should provide clear directions, allowing makers to focus on creating rather than devoting precious cognitive potential to figuring out what their task is.

Productive failure is an approach by which instructors set a challenging task to students with little or no explanation. Students tackle the challenge by activating previous knowledge and coming up with creative solutions that may or may not succeed. When the instructor reveals the best solution, the students are more interested in the outcome, have a deeper understanding of the problem, and are more likely to remember what they’ve learned from the experience than if they were simply presented with both problem and solution.

Paul outlines some advice for teachers and librarians who want to implement instructional strategies based on these theories:

  • Reduce cognitive overload
    • Give clear instruction on how to perform straightforward tasks, freeing cognitive resources for complex operations.
    • Separate learning and making into sequential activities.
  • Facilitate creative thinking
    • Have students work in groups and encourage them to generate as many potential solutions as possible.
    • Follow creative phases with direct instruction and discussion of why some solutions work better than others.

For more on the science of learning and making, check out Annie Murphy Paul’s articles for and School Library Journal’s special edition, “The Maker Issue.”

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